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Alleged Syrian Use of Chemical Weapons Examined

Aired April 25, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The Obama administration now says it does believe the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against opposition forces, most likely the poison gas sarin.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Obama had said the use of chemical weapons would be a red line for the United States. But today administration officials tell us the real red line will be marked by the corroborated and conclusive proof of the use of such weapons. To be specific, here is what Defense Secretary Chuch Hagel said from Abu Dhabi.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria; specifically, the chemical agent sarin.


AMANPOUR: Hagel added that he believes the weapons were used by the Syrian government, not by the rebels as the Assad regime has charged.

Now yesterday, on this program, the leader of the Syrian opposition forces General Salim Idriss told us that he had evidence. He accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons at least three occasions this past March and earlier.


AMANPOUR: I want to know whether you can confirm whether the Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons, sarin particularly, as Israel says?

GEN. SALIM IDRISS, CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY: Yes. I can confirm that the tubes of meridim (ph) used in the chemical weapons many, many times. They used the chemical weapons against the Old City in Homs.

And they used it repeatedly in Aleppo, again, the -- in Aleppo, in many places, they used it in Khan al-Assal and in -- and in Sheikh Maqsoud and another time they used chemical weapons in -- at Otaiba, near Damascus.

AMANPOUR: All right.

IDRISS: And the kind -- and the kinds of the chemical weapons that were used is some gases, some poisonous gases.


AMANPOUR: Now this video was released by rebel forces back in March and can't be verified by us. But the images show the aftermath of one of the attacks for which there is evidence, according to the rebels. The head of Israeli military intelligence said his forces have made a similar assessment to the -- a similar assessment to the U.S. as have France and Britain.

The British Foreign Office has now released a statement, saying the evidence is, quote, "extremely concerning," calling the use of chemical weapons, quote, "a war crime." Now the United States is waiting for the special U.N. investigative team to get into Syria and find further proof. That team, though, has been prevented from getting in by the Assad regime.

In a letter sent to Congress, the White House was careful to set out the caveats that we've mentioned and the Obama administration is cautiously looking over its shoulder at the recent faulty WMD evidence, namely in Iraq before the war.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): In its letter, the Congress says, "Given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient."


AMANPOUR: After what General Idriss, the commander of opposition forces, told us yesterday, we want to go back to him now for his reaction to the assessment now from the U.S.


AMANPOUR: General Idriss, welcome back to the program. You're inside Syria.

IDRISS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask your reaction to what the White House today has said, issuing a letter, saying that they have variable confidence that, in fact, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons.

What is your reaction?

IDRISS: I'm happy to hear that they have evidence. I told you yesterday that today -- that there are a lot of evidence. And we know exactly that Assad regime used chemical weapons many, many times in Syria till now.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, first I want to ask you, the administration believes it was two times, on two occasions.

Can you be specific about how many times you think it happened?

IDRISS: Yes. It happened more than three to four times. The first time was in Homs against the Old City. The second time was in Aleppo, Khan al-Assal, and the third time was near Damascus. And the last time was again in Aleppo.

AMANPOUR: The United States has not said that it has full proof and full evidence. Its assessments say that it has some confidence that chemical weapons have been used.

You told me yesterday that you were going to try and get more evidence.

Have you found anything?

IDRISS: Yes. I was in contact with my officers. And maybe in a short time, we will give you the names of the doctors who took the samples, the name of the injured, the name of those people who are witness, who saw everything.

AMANPOUR: Do you know what happened to the original soil samples and blood samples?

IDRISS: No. No, I'm sorry, I don't know.

AMANPOUR: So what is the next step then, do you think?

What do you think is going to happen next?

IDRISS: We are afraid that the regime will continue to use chemical weapons and we are very concerned that when the regime feel that he is going to lose everything, he will use the chemical weapons very heavily. Now he used some kind, some gases. And we are afraid that he will use all kinds of chemical weapons against the civilians.

Now we hope that the international community give this regime a very clear signal that it is really a red line. The chemical weapons mustn't be used again in Syria.

AMANPOUR: The White House says that its red line is really when it gets absolute proof. And it's waiting for the U.N. team to go in.

IDRISS: I hope that we don't have to wait till the regime uses the weapons very clearly and there are 100,000 of dead people, then we can say that it is the -- really a proof. And then we start to act.

We hope that our friends in the Western countries and in the international community now -- and right now -- give the regime a very clear signal that he has used the chemical weapons and that he crossed the red line. And he must -- and he must be punished.

AMANPOUR: And what do you think that signal would be?

IDRISS: I think the right signal now is to have a non-fly zone over Syria and to send a clear letter to Bashar that he -- when he think to use Scud missiles against the civilians and the -- to use chemical weapons, that will be the end of everything in Syria.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, thank you very much for joining me again.

IDRISS: Thank you. Thank you. Good luck. Bye-bye.


AMANPOUR: And now we go next door to Jordan, where the United States is beefing up its military presence and its contingency plan for dealing with chemical weapons in Syria. Jordan's King Abdullah is right now in Washington for a meeting with President Obama and you can bet that this issue will be a top priority.

Now CNN's Arwa Damon is in Jordan, and she joins me now from the capital, Amman.

Arwa, you heard everything that General Idriss has just said. And you've heard what the White House has said.

From your reporting, what can you add to this issue of chemical weapons use?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the issue, the main issue with all of it is that very little is, in fact, known about exactly what Syria possesses. Intelligence agencies do believe that it does possess one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. But where are those weapons located?

The U.S. has been trying to monitor their movements, as have the Israelis and other countries as well.

But the problem is that so little is known about them and, specifically, what the government, in fact, possesses, what its capabilities are, what its various mechanisms of potentially delivering a chemical weapon would, in fact, be the other thing, too, though, is that when you speak to people inside Syria -- when we were just there in December, they firmly believe that when it really comes to when the Assad regime really does believe that it is going to be (inaudible), it is not going to hesitate to target its own population. And that really (inaudible) people.

In Aleppo, in one of the hospitals that we were visiting back in December, the medical team there that is really effectively a bunch of volunteers, teenagers, people in their early 20s who only have the basic first aid capabilities, they were trying to devise their own ways and mechanisms of coming up with chemical suits, with gas masks, trying to get atropine to be able to potentially deal with casualties should they, in fact, arrive.

So for many people, this most certainly is a reality that they do believe that they're going to have to face. Of course, the main issue as we keep saying over and over again is that there's very little concrete, corroborated information as to what the Assad regime possesses and exactly how, when and if, in fact, it has already employed these weapons against its own population.

AMANPOUR: Well, now there seems to be enough intelligence by enough special forces and intelligence agents coming out, saying that at least there's been some kind of small-scale use of that.

From your perch now in Jordan, what have you learned about the contingency plans, the beefing up of U.S. forces, the Jordanian forces, which also have a very competent special forces and intelligence forces?

What do you think they're getting ready to do, if anything?

DAMON: Well, the one thing that they are most certainly going to be focusing on is trying to formulate some sort of a plan, should the Assad regime fall or when it does fall to be able to go in and secure these chemical weapons.

One of the main concerns for all of the major players here is seeing these weapons not only be employed by the Assad regime, of course, but also fall into the hands of a number of extremist organizations that have managed to, because of the situation unfolding inside Syria, really thrive and grow, namely the Al-Nusra Front, which the U.S. has already labeled a terrorist organization.

So the United States, the Jordanians, anybody else who is going to be considered to be an ally is going to be trying to really focus in, honing in their efforts to pinpoint exactly where these weapons are located and specifically what kind of steps need to be taken to move in and secure them because this most certainly is going to have to require some sort of military action, secure a stockpile of chemical weaponry is by no stretch of the imagination a simple or an easy task.

It's going to take very careful planning. And one can just imagine the kind of chaotic situation that is going to erupt inside Syria when the regime does, in fact, fall. It is obviously chaotic already. 2But given these circumstances, given this incredible challenge and what is at stake, this most certainly is going to be a major focus, a plan that is going to be put into place by the U.S. military, by the Jordanians as well.

AMANPOUR: Arwa, we have to say, as we did yesterday, that the Syrian regime denies that it's using these chemical weapons. But again, that the U.S. -- and you heard Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel say that he believes that they were used by the Assad regime and not by the rebels.

But give us a sense of how difficult it is to figure out what's going on on the ground and how much of Syria, to the best of your knowledge and other reporters, is now under control of the opposition and how much under the Assad regime?

DAMON: That is, as you mentioned, difficult to determine because so much of what happens in Syria really happens in a very gray area. You always constantly have these tit-for-tat accusations, information that is incredibly difficult to verify, something of a information campaign that is being undertaken by both sides.

Both sides (inaudible) very hard in trying to put their own perspectives forward. The front lines in Syria, the territories, the control of it, that continues to morph and change.

What is certain is that the rebels have been making gains throughout all of this. But they also have been losing in some instances small portions of key territory. But they have been able to advance in other parts of the country. 2And Aleppo, again, for example, they have managed to, if not control, at least wrest away control from the Syrian government of around two-thirds of the city itself. That being said, there continue to be intense battles for various key arteries that the Syrian government needs to use as resupply routes, so on and so forth.

And in speaking with activists with opposition members, with FSA fighters inside, they continue to remain confident that they are going to be able to continue to make these gains.

But again, one of the main concerns that many are voicing to us is that as we know, only too well, the longer this drags on, the stronger these extremists' groups grow, the more difficult the post-Assad era, if and when that should come, most certainly does become at this stage.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, Arwa. We've been watching a self-fulfilling prophecy in that regard. Thank you very much. We'll continue to check back in with you.

And also we acknowledge that sometimes it's a little difficult to get a totally clean link to places as far afield as Jordan. Nonetheless, it was great to have Arwa.

And when we come back, we'll have more of our continuing coverage of the rapidly developing news from Syria.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program as we continue to cover the U.S. assessment that, quote, "with varying degrees of confidence, Syria has used chemical weapons."

Senator John McCain has repeatedly called for stronger American response to the Assad regime. And now he says the red line that the president set out has been crossed and that it's time for the U.S. to step in.

Senator McCain joins me from Washington.

Welcome back to the program, Senator.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: Thank you, Christiane. It's always good to be with you.

AMANPOUR: It does seem to be an incredible day after all these really -- these allegations and more and more evidence coming out and Israel and France and Britain saying it this week, now the White House sends you a letter and your colleagues in the Senate to confirm your worst suspicions.

What do you expect to be the next move?

MCCAIN: Well, I hope the next move is that we will make plans to give the Syrians, the resistance, the wherewithal to break what our intelligence community also believes is a stalemate that is -- will probably last for a long time under the status quo.

I hope we will estimate a safe zone, supply weapons to the right people and allow the resistance, the Syrian National Council, to be in Syria, protected and organized, equip and train and make sure that all of that goes to the right people, not the jihadists who are flooding into the country.

AMANPOUR: Now with regard to the chemical weapons assessment, the administration further clarified its position on what the red line was after this letter that it sent to you all, basically saying that the red line will have been met once there is full and corroborated proof and evidence, that obviously they're hoping for the U.N. to go into figure it out, but that they have their own separate means as well.

How do you feel about that red line definition? And can you tell me how the U.S. will get that proof independently?

MCCAIN: First of all, in answer to your last question, I don't know. But I do know that the Israelis, the British and the French and by the way, also the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee stated today unequivocally that according to her that the Syrians had crossed that red line.

Here's the danger here now, Christiane, and that is that it is now strongly believed that this red line has been crossed. Now the Iranians and Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations will be watching to see what the United States of America does.

If we equivocate now and not give the Syrian resistance the level of support that they need to break the status quo, and I think the United States of America is going to have a huge credibility problem.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe, as some do -- and you mentioned the congresswoman of the committee -- that's Senator Dianne Feinstein -- also said that she was afraid that, you know, the regime might use even more of these chemical weapons if this red line was not confronted.

MCCAIN: Well, I have never had any doubt that Bashar al-Assad will do whatever is necessary, use what weapons are necessary. You are very familiar with the fact that he has butchered men, women and children, their atrocities committed are horrendous. There's never been any doubt in my mind.

I'm sure you recall some months ago that there were reports that he had loaded the Scuds with chemical weapons.

So I don't -- I have no doubt whatsoever that he would use weapons, chemical weapons. And by the way, last of all, what we have to do -- and it's compelling -- is that we have to be prepared, not just planning, but be prepared operationally to go in and secure those caches of chemical weapons in the event of Bashar's fall to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

AMANPOUR: I mean, you would probably say they're already in the wrong hands if they have, indeed, been used by the regime. But to your point about securing them, there is, as we know, beefed up U.S. military presence and intelligence presence, at least in Jordan and probably elsewhere on the borders.

What are they preparing to physically do? What will they do, these forces?

MCCAIN: It's hard to say, but Americans should not and I believe will not put boots on the ground.

But if there is a specific -- and I hate to get into these hypotheticals -- but if there were a specific case where we knew for certain that a chemical cache was going to fall into the hands of jihadist extremists, then I think the United States of America could in a very surgical way intervene and that the American people would understand that.

Americans do not nor should we put American boots on the ground under any other circumstance, in my view.

AMANPOUR: And Senator McCain, to go further into some of the intelligence that you are all privy to, can you tell us what you know about their chemical stocks, what movements, what have they been doing recently?

MCCAIN: All I know is that at one point he was loading Scud missiles, according to intelligence reports, with chemical weapons. And that was really concerning because of the half-life of the -- of these weapons once they're loaded. But we know that some of the chemical stocks have been moved around. Now for what purpose, I don't know.

And I usually, Christiane, try to stay away from a lot of these classified briefings. One, I never learn anything and, two, I don't want to talk to you about things that are of a confidential or secret nature.

But we know he has the capacity; we know where the caches are, many of them. And we know what could happen if -- after he fell, what -- that it could fall into the wrong hands. And we obviously are very concerned about him using them now in order to survive.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about another thing that the administration pointed out in its letter to you all, and that is about, you know, being burned once before by so-called, well, by faulty intelligence on WMD in Iraq.

This is what part of the letter says, "Given the stakes involved and what we've learned from our own recent experience, intelligent assessments alone are not sufficient; only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making."

How do you read that? Because of course, they're right. I mean, there was wrong evidence about Iraq.

So how is this going to --


MCCAIN: I think there was --

I think there was wrong evidence about Iraq and it's one of the most disgraceful chapters of American history and failure.

Well, let me put it this way: one, the disgraceful failures of American intelligence. In this case, though, we have seen evidence and the British and the French and the Israelis have seen actual evidence of its usage, and that or evidence that has compelled them to believe that it's being used.

I think that's different from the process that we went through concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And I don't blame people for saying we need conclusive evidence. But it seems to me that there is sufficient evidence that would indicate that he's crossed the red line.

AMANPOUR: Senator McCain, thanks very much indeed for joining me.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And after we take a break, the conflict in Syria has taken over 70,000 lives and there have been other irreplaceable losses, too.

Imagine the towering symbol of 1,000 years of faith. Now imagine it turned to dust in one days. That's when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, for more than two years we've looked on in horror at the human toll in Syria's civil war. But imagine a world where a thousand years of faith and culture have become a casualty. Ever since the 11th century, a graceful minaret has towered above Aleppo's famed Umayyad Mosque, which is a World Heritage site.

From its summit, the call to prayer has summoned the faithful and served as a beacon of belief for a millennium. But Wednesday, as government and rebel troops battled in the streets below, the minaret was toppled, suddenly reduced to a pile of stone and dust. And each side blamed the other.

It's the latest and some say the most grievous blow to Syria's rich cultural heritage. For months, the mosque itself has been battered and scarred with parts reduced to rubble. And a nearby medieval market was destroyed by fire as a result of the fighting.

Meantime, the conflict rages on; the weapons become more destructive; the body count rises and the soul of a nation is dying.

That's it for tonight's program. You can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.